People frequently tell me that I should not disclose so much information about myself as it could potentially be used by criminals, kidnappers and the like to harm me or my family. Interestingly, it is mostly my German friends who tend to argue this point. Germans, as Americans, seem to have a skewed allocation of risk, worrying too much about unlikely risks, and being careless about others. I have German friends who seriously speak to me about the danger of being kidnapped and then go on the autobahn and drive 200km/h without worries.

I think differently. I believe that being public about your life, disclosing your address, your location, your habits, and learning a great deal about the habits of others, is not necessarily adding risk to your life. First of all, I should clarify that I live in Spain and that I have not heard of a single recent kidnapping case in Spain. So I don’t worry about kidnappings. If I lived in my native Argentina, for example, I would be writing a different post. But in Spain, as everywhere, there is common crime and being part of the real time web makes it more likely, for example, for criminals to find out where my home is. My home has been published in magazines, appears on Google Earth/Maps and now that I have started taken photography lessons, I have published many pictures of our home as well. So is that a risk? Overall, are we safer or less safe if we frequently blog, use Twitter, Facebook, and Google Latitude? I think that the real time web helps me lead a safer life and I even include Latitude in this. Google Latitude shares my location in real time with others.

Recently, we were debating safety and Latitude with some friends and the comment was “well if you share your location criminals know where to mug you”. But while it is true that sharing your location may add risk to your life, I think that when people speak of dangers in life, they tend to think too highly of criminality as a risk, and not about other more probable risks for which knowing your location is actually a big plus: examples having a heart attack or falling unconscious while being alone. Many people are terrified at the thought of being murdered by a stranger in their own home and sharing their location on Latitude may scare them even more. But it turns out that being murdered is an extremely unlikely event, and that even when it happens, that most people who get murdered at their home are murdered by people they know. So sharing your location, your habits and your pictures may in some cases increase your risk profile, but overall sharing lowers your risk profile if you correlate risk to likelihood.

Sharing is like wearing a seat belt. Yes, in some cases it may strangle you, but overall it lowers your risk profile. Moreover, in Europe, for example, it is much more likely that if anyone murders you it is yourself in the form of suicide or a lethal accident. Acute depression, drunk driving, are much more common than crime or murder and this is self inflicted damage for which location sharing may save your life. And not only sharing your location but simply sharing your anxieties or problems may lower your risk of actually committing suicide. So if we consider risk anything bad that may happen to you think Latitude or sharing your location with friends and work associates does make your life safer. In my case, for example, I do a lot of mountain biking, with friends or alone, and I always take my mobile device with Latitude. Because even if you are with friends on fast descents everyone goes his own way and going back up to search for a friend is a slow process. In 1998 I had a serious accident mountain biking and it took half an hour of me bleeding to find me. Same with skiing, I see Latitude connected to an iPhone/Blackberry/Android with GPS as a real safety tool.

Now in terms of all other risks the real time web does help avoid risks or getting into trouble. Through Facebook you can track diseases real time, you can get medical advise from friends having similar problems, with other social networks that are geared towards medical users like 23andme (I am an investor) you share your most intimate genetic information with friends, but then you can cooperate in avoiding and treating medical conditions. In general terms I have no doubt that leading a life of isolation does make the likelihood that you will have poorly treated medical problems greater than leading a very social life.

Lastly, there is Twitter. While we don’t have kidnappers in Madrid we do have terrorists who occasionally blow things and sometimes people up. Twitter is the fastest way to get news real time on anything related to terrorism. Whenever something bad happens you see it fly through Twitter. Before Twitter you had to call 30 friends to tell them you were spared or you were well. Now it’s just a Tweet away.

Bottom line? If you want to lead a safer life join the real time web.

PS: I do recognize that this is an anecdotal article and I welcome proofs for or against the argument that sharing increases or decreases your risk profile.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
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At Fon,we run the largest, global, WiFi network in the world. It is a network built by the people. Fon is a clever piece of software that makes two WiFi networks out of the normally just one from your WiFi router. One network is encrypted, very safe and for you alone, with 100% of the bandwidth for your use except when a passer-by connects. Then its still 80% for you, and the other 20% becomes part of a public open network called “Fon Free Internet”. When others connect to your WiFi, you have a choice of allowing them to do it for free or to make them pay. If you make them pay you can reduce the costs of your ADSL or Cable bill or sometimes subsidize it. To join Fon, the only thing that our users have to do is buy a Fonera Router, there are no monthly fees. Members can then surf for free on any other Fonera for as long as they share. So our motto is “you share a little wifi at home and roam the world for free”. We now have over 700,000 people around the world sharing WiFi. In some countries, like the UK, you can find Fon practically everywhere. But because of its nature, Fon tends to be more common in residential areas. For public areas, such as airports, train stations or points of interest, Fon advocates Open WiFi. It is for this reason that we are very happy to report that our investors, Google, have decided to gift paid WiFi to everyone at busy US airports in the form of free WiFi this holiday season. We also congratulate Yahoo for doing the same in Times Square.

Skype Limited
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My investors at Fon include most of the people and companies that were involved in the recent sale of Skype. At Fon we have eBay, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom personally as investors and board members, Mike Volpi personally as an investor and board member, Danny Rimer as a board member and Index Ventures as an investor, and Marc Andreessen as an investor. So for me to talk about Skype after the recent dispute for the control of this company could be dangerous. But there´s no need to be concerned. This post is not about my opinions on what just happened at Skype as those are irrelevant here. Personally I think that Janus, Niklas, Mike, Danny and Marc are all awesome guys, amazing investors and board members. So what I will speak about is how I see the future of Skype and the dangers it may face and the opportunities it may have.

Before getting started I would like to say that I have been a user of Skype from the very beginning, from way before I actually met and became partners with Janus and Niklas, that I think that Skype is a remarkable product that is way ahead of the competition and that while not yet a highly profitable company, Skype has certainly been a gift to humanity. Now having sent my thank you note, let’s talk business.

Most communication on Skype as we all know, is totally free, only occasional calls to non Skype parties are the ones that generate the $740 million revenue run rate that allows Skype to make a living. The rest is love. And those revenues are under threat from three rivals.

The first one is called Facebook. While my friends inside Facebook have not disclosed anything to me, I think it is obvious that Facebook will soon have its own Skype. And what´s amazing about Facebook is that even though its pictures apps is mediocre in comparison to Flickr, its email pales in comparison to Gmail and its chat is way worse than that of Skype (no file attachments, no this, no this no that), the growth of those apps in Facebook is explosive. While I have been in Skype since 2004, on a recent check I had around 30 people I knew on Skype and 144 on Facebook chat. When Facebook incorporates a Skype like product, how many people will go on using Skype? Facebook is getting so big that soon there will be no Facebook Out. The threat that was Skype’s threat, namely how do you make money if everyone is on Skype and there is no Skype Out, is now being transferred to Facebook. But the thing is that Facebook, another gift to humanity, has a different business model, advertising, and they could really hurt Skype.

The second threat to Skype is flat rate pricing from telcos around the world. Why would anyone use Skype Out if they have an all you can eat tariff on their phone? And all you can eat tariffs are more and more frequent. In Europe all ADSL plans come with flat rates to all fixed lines, and in USA flat plans to fixed and mobile plans are more and more common. There are also community plans like calling anyone on AT&T for free that turns AT&T mobile into a Skype. It is remarkable that these plans are available to visitors such as myself and my family. We are six and when we go to USA everyone gets a phone with an AT&T card and we all call each other for free on prepaid! And telcos have one big advantage and that is that you don’t need a computer to make a phone call 🙂

The third threat is Google Voice. Google voice is interesting because it came out of the Google Talk fiasco and it shows how relentless Google is when it gets its mind set on something (disclosure Google is also an investor in Fon). What Google Voice is doing with the free phone calls attacks the very livelihood of Skype and that is Skype out. And the integration with Gmail and Gmail contacts is amazing. Skype is weak at that, it has no email. Google first copied Skype with Gtalk and it took off but not really. Google Voice is the second derivative of the Skype attack, and is going well. The $50 million acquisition of Grand Central that resulted in Google Voice stands up there with the acquisition of Keyhole that resulted in Google Earth as two of the best M&A moves of Google so far.

So considering that Skype is under attack from Facebook, the largest telcos in the world and Google how can it be a good business to buy Skype?

Well the key here for the new investors in Skype is not whether Skype will rule the world but whether it will be worth more than what the investors paid for it. And after giving you the cons here are some arguments and strategies in favor of the acquisition.

Skype is simple. Michael Arrington and all of Silicon Valley may find Google Voice amazing but is the average global citizen ready to use it? Massively use it? You download Skype, you find your friends on Skype, you talk. And if you don’t find them you Skype out. And when you talk you can also do video. I LOVE video calls on Skype. I used to use them for people I really cared about, relatives, close friends. Now I even do business calls on video with Skype. It just gives you more of a sense of what is going through the other person´s mind. And Skype is the leader on video quality. So simplicity plus video may be a good way to beat flat plans from telcos and avoid being Tivoed. If the video services can migrate to mobile phones Skype is on to something.

Skype can include advertising. If Gmail reads your emails and places ads why can´t Skype do the same thing on their chat or even their voice channels? How far are we from systems that listen to what you say and just as you finish saying “let´s go to Ibiza for the weekend” they start showing you cheap flights to Ibiza. Gmail proved that if you give people a great service they don’t care if you spy on them. That could be an enormous revenue source. So far Google has been kind to Skype even including it in the Google pack. Maybe a Google deal for advertising is in the making.

Facebook is not the only community in the world, there is Linked In, Xing and other business networks. Those “business types” work best with Skype. I believe that as Facebook squeezes everybody in its quest to Microsoft the world (Mark Zuckerberg told me that Microsoft is his model) a few Apples will emerge. Skype could be one of them. Apple has a tiny fraction of the PC market, Dell dwarfs it in revenues. But Apple dominates the over $1000 PC segment. Skype could position itself as the communicator of choice for businesses. And that has tremendous value.

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Kofi Annan. Former United Nations Secretary-Ge...
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Al Qaeda’s actions on 9/11 2001 changed America’s view of the world. After the terrorist attacks the Bush administration came to the conclusion that America as a whole was under attack from the Middle East and that the solution was to move that war away from home into the Muslim countries. But what if the US government, first the Bush administration and now the Obama administration, are wrong and the incredibly successful Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 were not the beginning of a war on America or the West but a freak event?

In 2005 Safe Democracy, my foundation co- organized the largest conference ever put on the subject of terrorism. The conference was attended by many heads of state and 1300 experts from the Middle East and the rest of the world. One of the highlights of the conference was the decision of Kofi Annan to choose this event to announce the UN Principles for Nations to apply when fighting terrorism. These principles were understood by many as a warning to the US that terrorism could not be fought with more terror, a la Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Also around that time it become clear that the subsequent attacks that seemed to resembled 9/11, namely the bombings on March 11 in Madrid and July 7 in London were home grown efforts of a very different kind. These tragic post 9/11 terrorist bombings were found to be not so much a continued attack by Al Qaeda but the story of angry immigrants who were reacting to Spain and UK participating in the invasion of Iraq. In other words, these attacks were not originated in the Middle East but instead the consequence of our involvement in the Middle East. Terror in the form of brutal air bombings, torture on behalf of the US and EU occupying forces, led to more terror in Europe. Out of fighting Al Qaeda with methods perceived as unreasonably brutal by Muslim immigrants in Europe a new type of home grown terrorism was born. It was this realization that made Spain’s President Zapatero pull out from Iraq and since then the threat of Islamic terrorism has diminished.

So the question here is why the USA and EU continue to believe that occupation of either Iraq and Afghanistan, or only Afghanistan, is the best regional strategy. Many commentators still believe that we are safer because we occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. But lately many have been changing their views and are beginning to agree that Osama Bin Laden was a freak terrorist with a very personal agenda, who because of his own international background and skills, had his own global war to carry. We should not manage our international agenda thinking that the globally minded Osama Bin Laden is the rule but that even the most radical elements in the Muslim world are now focused in regional objectives in countries that are mostly Muslim or have large Muslim populations, such as the tragic attacks on India. Few critical observers believe that whoever is fighting Europe and the US in Afghanistan, for example, wants to actually attack Europe or the US the way Osama Bin Laden did. Instead most conflict in Afghanistan, and the Middle East in general, now is against occupying forces or Palestinian/Israeli, Sunni/Shia and moderate vs radical Islam.

Al Qaeda type attacks outside of the Middle East, like the attack in Mumbai, are serious but not the driving force of violence in the Middle East. The only way to prevent those is not for India to invade Pakistan, where a lot of radical Islam is based, but to better protect itself. By now it is clear that most of the fighters in Afghanistan just want the US and EU out of their country and will fight us like they fought the British 100 years ago and the Russians 30 years ago. But just like they did not go on attacking Great Britain after it pulled out of Afghanistan a century ago, I don’t think that even a Taliban Afghanistan will include a successor to Osama Bin Laden planning the next 9/11 out of there. I think that part of the message the Taliban got as well as Qaddafi got his when we bombed his home. And indeed, our enemies in Afghanistan want to turn the country back into the Middle Ages forcing men to wear beards, oppressing women, banning music and so on, but is it our role to turn the Middle East into Western democracies or to protect our way of life and economies in our own countries? Because if the answer is the former we could invade Saudi Arabia next, as most 9/11 attackers were Saudis and they also promote a way of life which we find that violates the rights of women, homosexuals and other groups who deserve their human dignity. But can we afford a global crusade for dignity? Would you send your child to die so the homosexuals of Iran, for example, stop getting the death penalty? Nobody seems to advocate that.

We have squandered over a trillion dollars occupying and policing Iraq and Afghanistan, trying for those countries to become something they don’t want to be. In the meantime we have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan’s fragile economies and we have given an impossible task to our military who are dying for a dubious cause in tragic ways. What we should be doing instead is focusing our precious human and financial resources in making sure that those who intend to destroy us, freaks like Osama Bin Laden, do not get hold of nuclear weapons or the infamous weapons of mass destruction and achieve their personal objectives. And I say personal because I travel the Middle East enough to conclude that most Muslims want to be like us rather than see us become like them. But to make sure that the next Osama does not show up with real weapons we need better cooperation with Russia and China who also suffer terribly from Islamic terrorism. We have to work with them not only because they are victims of the same phenomenon, their countries border the Islamic world but also if we antagonize them, they can be the reason why the next Osama Bin Laden does show up with a nuclear weapon. In short what we have to do is to make sure that 9 11 continues to be the biggest and most successful terrorist attack in history, a freak event that is never again repeated.

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With the “share a little WiFi at home and roam the world for free” formula, FON got to be the largest WiFi network in the world – currently at over 650K FON Spots. Now, with the new Fonera 2.0n (802.11n) WiFi router that gives Foneros (FON members) an auto uploader/downloader built-in, FON should reach well over 1 million FON Spots.

The Fonera 2.0n is described in the video below. In addition to making you a free, lifetime member in the largest WiFi sharing community on the planet, this is what the Fonera 2.0n does when connected to your favorite hard drive:

– downloads torrents on its own so you can arrive home and watch your favorite content (do not download illegal content, there are plenty of legal torrents available, for example You can tell the Fonera 2.0n what you want to download from work or school, from your computer or even from your iPhone or Android.

-downloads from Rapidshare.

-downloads from Megaupload.

-downloads from any site with a file to download, like the latest Ubuntu version.

-uploads videos to YouTube. Send them over WiFi to the Fonera and the Fonera sends those HD monsters to YouTube, freeing up your laptop for the next hours.

-uploads those high quality pictures that take forever to Flickr, or Picasa or even Facebook.

-offers large files for your friends to download.

-prints via WiFi. It sends music to your amplifier via WiFi. It connects to a webcam so you can know what is going on at home. It works with DynDNS.

-converts 3G to WiFi like the MiFi.

-twitters! The fonera is the first gadget to tweet itself. You open an account for your Fonera and the Fonera tells you what it is doing, like “Your video is in Youtube,” or “Somebody connected to your WiFi signal.”

And of course, the Fonera 2.0n is N (802.11n), which means faster WiFi at greater distances. Lastly, if you don’t like to share WiFi and just want to have the Fonera 2.0n all for yourself, or you don’t believe you will make money offering WiFi to others, you can disconnect the FON function altogether…and we will still like you :). But before doing that, you should know that Foneros who share their FON Spot earn on average 6 Euros in revenue (over 8 US Dollars a year), which means your Fonera 2.0n just might end up paying for itself and then some.

More in depth video

This just appeared in the Huffington Post

Iraq, Afghanistan: lessons from the Pros

The Iraqi and Afghan military interventions have caused the death of over a million people, have cost trillions of dollars, have greatly weakened the US military, have increased the budget deficit, have hurt the dollar, have resulted in much greater terrorism in the Middle East (now expanding into Pakistan), have fortified Iran’s position as the strongest regional power determined on its quest for an atomic bomb. In short it´s been a disaster. As a result while calling to an end of the intervention was the home of “the weak” (i.e. the Dems according to the Republicans) now “the brave” as well are asking for withdrawals. As criticism of the US and European policies in the Middle East grows this article looks at how the failed policies in the region could be reshaped by learning from those who have managed to do suprisingly well for themselves in this troubled part of the world: the Israelis, the Iranians and the Afghan drug lords.

Lessons from Israel

First allied forces should emulate the strategy of Israel to deal with terrorism by ending occupation in South Lebanon and Gaza, by ending occupation in Afghanistan and Irak while keeping key bases in the region from which to retaliate should it be necessary. Israel tried and failed with occupation. It found it too costly, inhumane and inefficient. In the end it withdrew or separated with a wall from all occupied territories. Israel’s new strategy is to stay away from areas where terrorists are but to always stand ready to retaliate when attacked from them. As controversial as it is, retaliatory, short lived invasions as the ones of Lebanon and Gaza, rather than permanent occupation, work best at deterring Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel has not solved the conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah but the death toll has dwindled to the lowest levels ever on both sides in 09. History has shown again that military interventions are much easier than occupations. Why insist?

Lessons from Iran

Secondly US/EU should learn from Iran and emulate their tactics but of course, in favor of peace. What Iran does best is to influence Middle Eastern nations by proxy. Iran provides key donations and training in areas that improve people’s lifestyles and wins their approval for their own objectives which unfortunately are not peaceful. Many Lebanese and most Palestinians now love the Iranians for the help they receive for schools, hospitals, job creation and a vision for the future. We should emulate the Iranians but finance an alternative Muslim lifestyle that is compatible with peace. We should also fund better schooling, housing, jobs and health but along the proposals of Jordan not Iran. Our opportunity here is to work with the very able King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan. If we only endowed a foundation led by the King and Queen with a fraction of what we are spending in the war efforts we could outspend and outsmart the Iranians at their own strategy and win good will for a future based on cooperation. The GDP of Iran is a third of that of Spain. We can do much better if we help our allies in the region help everyone else.

Lessons from the Drug Lords

Lastly and sadly, in Afghanistan we must learn from the Afghan drug lords who are the only ones who seem to thrive in this horrible conflict. Allied forces in Afghanistan must understand that the war in that country is mainly about drugs which make 1/3 of the country´s GDP. We should also accept the unfortunate truth that if it were not for Europe and USA drug consumerism, drug lords would have no income. It is our mental health problems that finance their drug traffic. We are mainly responsible for it. Drug lords finance their wars against us with our money. How? They buy drug crops at very low prices and collect market prices from our consumers of drugs in Europe and USA through their mafias. What is the solution? What we should do is buy all the drug crops from Afghan peasants directly from them outbidding drug lords and cutting them out of the value chain. After we have the crops we should simply destroy them. Interestingly peasants in drug producing nations such as Colombia or Afghanistan get a tiny fraction of the end value of drugs, drug lords make a living by collecting the spread between what they buy the crops at and what they sell them for as drugs in our markets. But we must get in that market and neutralize their income without hurting the peasants. Another similar solution that is costly but “very European” is to imitate the Common European Agricultural Policy of subsidies to Afghanistan. By paying a surplus for each Afghan sheep and cow we will make it more profitable for Afghans to raise cattle than growing drug crops. This would have the appeal of ending the drug crops altogether. But whatever we do we can’t fight the livelihood of most of the population if we want to stabilize the country. People must make a living and the drug lords provide one.

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Nina and I have been to Japan many times. But always to Tokyo, which we love. But on this trip we had a special situation going on. We are working on a significant project related to Fon in Japan, one of these complex deals that takes many people and significant time to pull off. And while my work was done by Monday I felt that it was wiser to “stick around” Tokyo in case something went wrong and my presence was needed again. But Fon has a very able management team that is in Japan as well so I also knew that it was possible that I would not be needed anymore. And that´s when the idea came about to stay in Japan but not in Tokyo. We chose to come to the Northern Island of Hokkaido following the recommendations of Joichi Ito and Joshua Ramo, two dear friends one who is Japanese and the other who knows Japan very well. The objective coming here was both to have fun and to be within an hour of flying time to Tokyo if we need to go back. But what we thought would be an easy driving around to get to know Japan turned out to be quite complex. Over the last two days we found out that Japan is really very inaccessible to foreigners. As we go around Hokkaido we feel that traveling Japan is like “hacking Japan”, hacking in the sense of building a “code” that helps you accomplish a task, but also hacking in the sense that it is very difficult to travel around Japan.

I don´t speak Swedish but I can rent a car and drive around Sweden, or Holland, or many countries in Europe whose language I don´t speak. But renting a car and driving around Hokkaido is something else. Almost everything here is in Japanese and very few people speak English. So here is our little story since we left Tokyo.

We were able to check in at Haneda airport and most procedures were normal but on the plane announcements were in Japanese only. Interestingly we were the only non Japanese on the plane and fortunately we liked the Japanese food they served as that was the only choice. No cutlery, no western food. I don´t know if you know this but the Japanese food that the Japanese normally eat has very little to do with the typical sushi restaurant that you are familiar with and probably love. The Japanese food that the Japanese eat is heavy on pickles and fish with very strong flavors. But the Japanese being Japanese, meaning extremely kind and considerate, as the stewardess spotted us she would stand by us and translate the announcements for us, and as she saw how I stared at the Japanese dessert in desperation she showed up with some cookies (I love most Japanese food but invariably dislike their desserts).

When we landed we went to rent a car at Nippon Rent a car and that was extremely complicated. It´s not that it would be extremely complicated if we had understood Japanese but as it was, we had a very hard time. There was nobody at the Nippon booth but they had a phone. I picked it up and the person on the other side of the phone did not understand me until I switched to what I discovered is the English that the Japanese understand which is basically me imitating their accent while trying to keep a straight face. I know this sounds absurd but in order to speak Japanese with the Japanese person you have to speak like they do, for example adding non existent vowels here and there, rolling the r´s in a peculiar way, changing the intonation to theirs, and only then do you begin to communicate with most Japanese. Because it´s not that the Japanese know no English, it´s that they never had a chance to practice it and mostly learned it from a Japanese person who spoke it like they do. So the lady on the phone who could not tell I was Martin Varsavsky on a first try, realized that I was Maritini Varisaviski on a second try. When she tried to explain to me how to get the bus to their car rental lot I struggled and as a result we lost a quarter of an hour until we were rescued by another kind Japanese person who saw my Japanese written leaflet and took us there. And once we got there, what was worse is that they would not rent me nor Nina a car without an International Driver´s license. The rules were incomprehensible. With a US license you need an International Driver´s License given by the AAA. With a German license you need to go to a public translator in Japan and get the German translated but surprisingly you don´t need an International Driver´s License. As you can expect we did not have any of those. But I had once asked for an International Driver´s License and managed to have it faxed from Spain. Even though it was expired, by 11pm the Nippon Rent a Car employees took pity on us and gave us the Toyota.

But our troubles did not end there. The car had a GPS as we wanted but the GPS was only in Japanese. In Japan btw even Windows comes only in Japanese. But we got over that one as well and by showing the map we managed to get somebody to program the GPS for us. In all these things I must say that the Japanese combine the inaccessibility of visiting their country with an unparalleled kindness that almost always gets you ou whatever mess you are in. Still it is tough.

And even with the programmed GPS if you are British you are Ok but for the rest of us another challenge begins in Japan and that is to drive on the left side of the road, listening to a GPS that talks to you in Japanese, with a toll system where the letters ETC do not mean etcetera but the exact opposite and where the normal roads are very narrow by other standards (in general I must say Japan is a “tight” country, everything is smaller than you would expect).

So getting around in Japan renting a car is very complicated. But as we discovered today there is another barrier if you want to film your very own Japanese road movie and that is that when it gets to be time to sleep hotels are CRAZY expensive. First of all there are very few. You can see that Japan is not a country in which people drive around. Or at least not Hokkaido. But when you find them it is unbelievable what they charge. We found 3. One had no rooms, the other one was $900 per night and the one in which we are staying is $600 per night. And our room is smaller than that of the average US motel by the road. Yes that price includes dinner and breakfast but interestingly meals in Japan are not expensive. Last night we had an amazing Miso Ramen and gyoza dinner for only $25 for 2. Today we had great Italian lunch for $30 for 2. So what is expensive is to sleep in Japan not to eat in Japan. And maybe Japanese people can read some Japanese signs that say hotel only in Japanese and that cost less. But we did not see any buildings with cars outside that looked like hotels after driving for one hour in the Furano area except the three that I mentioned. We are staying at one called Orika. So with a rental car that costs $120 per day plus tolls that frequently cost $15 and hotels that cost over $500 per night is is hard to recommend to anyone to “drive and explore Japan” as nice as people are.

So by now you know that it is extremely complicated to drive around Japan, that driving is on the left, places are hard to find, GPSs talk to you in Japanese and only come in Japanese and so are most signs, that people however are incredibly nice in sharp contrast with say, the French, that food is outstanding and affordable, that rooms instead are insanely expensive and hard to come by, now what about sightseeing? Is Hokkaido worth the detour as the Guide Michelin likes to say? And that is what I am not sure of, I am sorry to say. Especially not considering that anyone who wants to visit Japan from most places in the world has to spend half a day on a plane and that when you drive around Japan you must do it at the slowest speeds on the planet. In all roads that we were on except the highways the maximum speed was frequently 40km (not miles km) per hour or sometimes 60km. When we could not take it anymore we went at 80km in a deserted, straight road only to find that the only people there were the police who jump out of a bush and stop you. Japan is probably the only country in the world in which when you exceed the speed limit they can stop you…by foot. Of course they were very nice and did not give us a fine. They just scared us a bit cause when they jumped out of the bush with their flags I thought they were simply…crazy people.

So here´s a collection of pictures that I took today. In these pictures you find the only two places that I found worth photographing, the abandoned gigantic Buddha with a still functioning elevator inside that I am still trying to find out what it was, and a random kids fair. The rest is not exciting. As far as nature is concerned USA, Argentina, Spain are much better. As far as architecture is concerned it is not only that anything that you may think of Japanese is lacking. Unfortunately is is also that whatever you consider poor taste in home design wherever you are from is unfortunately frequently present in the Japanese landscape. I can show you random pictures of average homes around Japan and you will go back home to wherever you are from, USA, Italy, Spain, even Germany and kiss your own home town. And on top of this the Japanese suffer from a landscape that in Europe I have only seen in Switzerland and that is that they try to put everything in the same place probably because they have no room, even in Hokkaido. Whatever is not mountains must house everything else. So it´s hard to see a landscape without a power line, a factory, or a green house. But what is worse is that even when they do have nature, like in this hotel where we are staying tonight they build a high rise building. You can see it in their website. What is the point of building a high rise building smack in the middle of a forest. And here is another one around 20km from here. You look at the picture and you think it´s in the middle of Tokyo and not in the middle of a forest. So all this may explain two things. Why there are no foreigners in Japan but also why it is practically impossible to go around Europe without seeing Japanese tourists. It is probably as hard for them to come to see us as it is for us to come and see them and yet they make the effort. But they make the effort to come because it´s worth it. For the same reason we eat Japanese food, because it´s probably the best in the world.

It is unacceptable to go on sending planes over the ocean without position trackers, real time weather information, ground based support and no satellite phones. It is wrong that in emergency situations pilots can only communicate with, say, Cape Verde control and not with their own airline, or even plane makers such as Boeing or Airbus. It is absurd that we don’t know where planes are when they fly over the ocean and even when they are on the ground we only know it within a few miles range but not exactly where they are because radars are so inaccurate.

Aircraft in transoceanic flights should send location, heading, speed and other relevant data by satellite; automatically and every few seconds. They should be capable of downloading real time weather data to increase the efficiency and safety of flights and pilot autonomy. Weather radar is a very primitive way to fly, especially without ground support. Weather radars from the plane should be contrasted with satellite info received in the aircraft. There should also be a secondary means for voice communication, also by satellite to be able to quickly contact an airliner crossing the ocean. Furthermore, making these flights safer should impact insurance costs, and increases in operational efficiency would lower fuel consumption.

In this post I present a few possible solutions to these problems. Of course, this is only one of many series of measures that can be taken to make these flights safer.

Voice communication and transmission of important flight data

The Guardian Skytrax 3Xi is a device that transmits GPS location, altitude, bearing, wheels up-wheels down, time and velocity information over the web, where it is accessible through a secure internet connection using IE or Firefox. A transoceanic airliner requires the 3Xi model, which works with external antennas and costs $2395. It can be configured for a message frequency of your choice (eg. one message per minute). The messages are $0.06 each, and there is a one-time activation fee of $110.

This device comes with the Maptrac system for tracking and reports, which costs $39.95 per month. Maptrac is a web-based mapping tool requiring no server, software, data purchase or IT investment. It allows airlines to see all their aircraft simultaneously, whether it be their active or historical tracks. There is a screenshot of Maptrac in action below. Guardian Mobility, the makers of the Skytrax, also have a Google based mapping system called Rimtax which can be used on iPhones and Blackberrys.gview1

The Skytrax is offered standalone and in a package including a satellite phone. This package, including the additional antenna, goes up to about $4000 plus installation.

The cost for installation and certification of this equipment on an aircraft like the A330 is about $8000. The certification required is called a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) and only needs to be done once for each aircraft model. After that, the cost of installation would approximate $2000.

It is also possible to send location, speed, etc. via Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) messages. ACARS is a protocol in aviation communications for the transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via Very High Frequency (VHF) radio or SatCom (Satellite Communications). This can be done for about $0.15/message. At one update per minute it would amount to $108 for a 12 hour flight.

Most planes on transoceanic routes are equipped to transmit ACARS via satellite, so this option involves no certification or hardware upgrades. It is still however more expensive than the Skytrax solution. Assuming two flights per day, one message per minute and the aforementioned prices you would save around $3900 a month by using the Skytrax 3i instead of ACARS. According to this, the Skytrax system is the better choice.

Receiving real time weather data

Real time weather data would require about 512kbit/s. The commonplace SatCom equipment in transoceanic flights uses a band of the electromagnetic spectrum named “L band“. Bandwidth here is too low and expensive to handle the data rates required for this application.

The “Ku-band” is another band that has been used to provide passengers with broadband connectivity aboard commercial flights in the past. It isn’t certified for flight critical functions but it is ten times cheaper at about $0.5/mbit of transmitted data. The intention here is not to replace primary, safety critical systems; but to complement them. Hence, Ku-band could be a suitable type of connection to download real time weather data.

The problem here is that although most of the aircraft that fly over the ocean are equipped with L-band avionics, very few are equipped with the systems required to connect to Ku-band signals. And they are expensive: About $0.25M each. However, this cost can be recouped by selling broadband to passengers, generating ad revenues from adverts placed for the passengers, more efficient flight routes and the lower insurance costs that should be associated with safer flying.

Before the digital era there was only way to be poor and that was not to have access to things. But now there´s a new kind of poverty and that is digital poverty. Not only can you be poor because you have no access to the information society as we like to call it in Europe but even inside the Internet you can be poor. Let me give you a concrete example of digital poverty. It relates to Stardoll. Stardoll is a very simple yet incredibly successful site for little girls to dress up their dolls. I first blogged about Stardoll in April of 2006 both in English and Spanish What happened to me after blogging about Stardoll in Spanish is that because of my Google Ranking when you google Stardoll only in Spanish you come to my blog. But what´s unusual about Stardoll is that even though doll´s are virtually dressed in Stardoll their virtual clothes cost real money. And what I frequently get now is e mails from little girls from Spanish speaking countries who ask me if I can please give them stardollars so they can buy dresses for their little dolls. And I feel so sorry about them that I even contemplated that my foundation could finance some of these but came to the conclusion that that would be absurd. Interestingly, yesterday, I had a chance to see Mattias Miksche from Stardoll again and raise this issue. Since there´s little cost involved in producing these clothes. Couldn´t we start an NGO that actually gave them for free or for practically nothing to poor girls in say Ecuador, Peru, Colombia? And in general, now that wealth is both felt (no food) and perceived (Swedish girls can buy clothes, Peruvian girls can´t), don´t we have an opportunity in the virtual world to do virtual philanthropy and make a lot of little girls, boys, and even grown ups happy? Mattias did not give me a concrete answer but I am sure he is thinking about this. Personally I think that there is a chance of bringing digital justice to this world. Pricing digital property in terms of the average purchasing power of each country would be a good start. Cause as opposed to real property digital property has no cost for an extra copy. Let´s take advantage of this and start the digital fair trade movement!

With Stardoll issuing Stardollars, with Second Life having Linden Dollars and many other sites selling virtual gifts and virtual property, will we soon see an Exchange in which all these virtual currencies and properties are traded?

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